Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Last Few Days

I have not been diligent about updating the blog, but in the last five days, here are a few of the things I have done:

I have gone to a Xela-Guatemala City soccer game (we won), gone to discos, legal and otherwise, walked the city of Xela for an entire day, seen the oldest church in latin america.  I have seen a market lit by candlelight, walked through an old growth pine forest, hitch-hiked down a mountain, and canoed across a lake in the crater of a volcano, completely shrouded in cloud.

Tomorrow I leave Xela, and on friday fly back to the states.  pictures will be coming up by tuesday, and more stories as well.

It has been quite an adventure.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I ignored my alarm this morning, and slept until 7:30, when I’m usually finishing breakfast. I rushed through the morning routine, Daniel picked me up, and we got to class on time. I learned three verb forms today, all before the break. Since Fridays are community lunches at El Nahual, and I didn’t have anything to prepare, I went with my teacher, Stephen the coordinator, and Maggie to the market during break and into class time. We took a bus to Democracia, the massive market, and spent some time there buying everything we needed. The markets here are amazing, tons of people sitting on the street selling huge amounts of anything you could want to buy. Maggie and Daniel were making a fruit salad, and she bought ten starfruits for about sixty cents. In the states, one starfruit goes for at least a buck fifty, probably much more. We got back, I took a little exam to see what I had retained, and began preparing lunch. All of the volunteers, the coordinators, and my teacher were in the kitchen together preparing lunch. The theme for lunch was Chinese food, but I elected to make Chinese guacamole, as it just doesn’t make sense to make Guatemalan food when in Guatemala. When we were finished preparing, we all ate at a long table. There was more than enough food to go around, and we all stuffed ourselves full.

After lunch, Daniel and I planned our lesson, and went into town to get some number worksheets printed out. We had the kids write the numbers from one to ten, which was very difficult for most of the kids. Some of them could count fine and could recognize the numbers, but others could not tell a four from a two. I worked with one girl for a while so that she could at least recognize the numbers from one to five. When the kids lost interest in writing numbers, we went to the street, wrote the numbers on the road, and had them run to the number we called. This proved exceedingly difficult, as the kids who were interested in playing really did not know their numbers. After playing this for a few minutes, it was break time. For thirty minutes after break, we played games on the floor, until it was time for the surprise. We brought the kids back out to lawn, and had two piñatas for the kids, to celebrate my birthday, a few days late. We let the little ones do the first piñata, and the bigger kids do the second. It was a blast. The piñatas were reinforced with wire, and kept their integrity through many blows. Just as the second piñata was going to break, I took the bat and did it in. Watching all the kids dive at the candy was priceless.

After school, Daniel and I went to Maggie’s. I didn’t stay long, and went to the internet café. I got distracted from what I needed to do there, which was buy plane tickets, and I went home. I had every intention of going back after dinner, but during dinner I let it be known that I can make many strange noises, and spent the rest of the evening juggling and making noises with my family.

Wednesday and Thursday

When I walked in the kitchen this morning, my host mom wished me a happy birthday, and my host father gave me a big hug, and after checking to see if I believe in God, asked God to grant me many more happy birthdays. My Spanish class moved a bit slow today, probably because we were working on preterit and imperfect, which is quite tedious. After class, Daniel and I went to the supermarket to buy supplies for the hike tonight. We made the mistake of going before eating lunch, so everything looked delicious and very necessary for a volcano hike. Knowing I had a long day ahead of me, I took a short nap after lunch, until Daniel picked me up to go to school. Today’s big activity was painting the rocks that line a little garden in front of the school. We had about a dozen cans and buckets and bottles of paint, and as many brushes as we could ever want. We opened all of the paint, and let the kids have at it. What ensued was hilarious: four-year-olds fishing rocks out of cans of paint, mixing all the colors, adding water to cans of paint, and cans of paint to water. They had a great time painting, and we had a great time watching them. Of course, right when it was time to start cleaning up, the school’s water stopped working. We managed to clean up with what water was left, and headed home.

I meant to sleep between school and dinner, but ended up finishing my book instead. Just as I finished, Maggie rang the doorbell. We chatted for a while; she had a great meeting this afternoon and was super excited to tell all about it. After not long, Daniel came over. We chatted for a bit, and then were called to dinner. My family had prepared a wonderful birthday dinner, each plate set out with an array of tacos, and toppings all around the table. They brought out a birthday cake too. For the next two hours, we ate, talked about the volcano that Daniel and I were about to hike, and laughed and laughed and laughed. My host father is a genuinely funny man, and is filled with hilarious stories. After stuffing ourselves full, and then eating cake, I got my things together for the hike, and Daniel and I walked Maggie home. We went to Daniel’s to get his stuff, and at 10:30, went down the street to Quetzaltrekkers, the trekking organization that was leading the tour.

When we walked in, all of the talk was about who had done more 100 K’s, and who qualified for the Boston Marathon but not the New York. Quite intimidated, Daniel and I waited for the volunteers at Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer organization that donate all its profits from the hikes to a school and an orphanage in town, to outfit us with the equipment we needed. We quickly realized that our little daypacks would not fit the four liters of water, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and as many warm layers we could find, so we borrowed big packs from them too. As we packed up, we realized that most of the marathon talk was coming from one woman, who clearly had to talk about herself and how amazing she was at every moment, and some of our feelings of intimidation faded. A couple next to me was speaking Hebrew, so I chatted with them a bit. Just as I finished packing my stuff, the couple asked anyone if they were interested in playing Set. It was clear we’d be friends. We played for a bit, and the husband (they are on their honeymoon) was quite good. As we finished our first game, they told the slower two-thirds of the group of twenty two hikers to get our packs on and head out the trucks outside. The 16 of us piled into the backs of two pickup trucks, and rode for about twenty-five minutes to the base of the volcano.

At midnight, after being introduced to the four guides who were with us and hearing a bit about the protocols, we began the hike. Though it was the middle of the night, we needed no flashlights; you could have read by the light of the full moon. It was an easy start, and we hiked for about a half an hour, and then took a break, waiting for the second group to join us. Every time we stopped we had to put on more layers, it was already in the forties. After waiting about fifteen minutes, the other group showed up, and we got on our way. We took another break, with snacks and everything, before the real ascent started.

Then the hike got hard. We continued by moonlight for the next four hours, talking with different people for a while, then moving ahead of them, or lagging behind them. At some point, I needed to keep my fleece on in addition to my gloves; frost was beginning to form on the rocks, and glistening in the moonlight. The city of Queztaltenango unfolded in front of us, the lights flickering, lighting up the whole valley below. We had to scramble up parts, and had to keep our breaks short to keep from freezing.

Just as we began to feel that we couldn’t go much further; the altitude hitting us pretty hard in combination with the exhaustion, we began to see the guide’s flashlights at the top. One of the guides led us up the last ten minutes, and we finally reached the top, freezing, exhausted, and triumphant. We scrambled to the very top, had a look around at the mountains illuminated by the moon. We then found a flat spot near all the other hikers who had already reached the top, laid out our sleeping pads and bags, put on all of our layers, and squirmed into our mummy bags, leaving nothing exposed to the air.

About an hour and fifteen minutes later, I woke up. The sky was a gradient of oranges, reds, and magentas, leaving the silhouettes of the volcanoes in front of us. I tapped Daniel, who bolted up, opened his eyes, and let his mouth drop at the sight of it. We watched the colors change from our sleeping bags for a while, until I got up to look around. We had a 360 degree view of Guatemala, with at least six other volcanoes in sight. The moon continued to shine brightly, making the sunrise even more emotional than it already was. Eventually most of the other hikers also got up, and were taking pictures, walking around to see more, and reveling in the sight. Two of the volcanoes, one silhouetted by the coming sun, and one right next to us, were active, and occasionally spewed a plume of smoke into the sky.

Just as the sun peeped through, our Israeli friend played Here Comes the Sun on his phone. Tacky though it was, it felt like the perfect way to welcome in the next decade of my life. At every angle a different gorgeous view could be seen; the city of Xela was completely covered in clouds below us, and the sun lit up the clouds beautifully. The most amazing sight, however, was opposite the sunrise. In the mist that covered the mountains to the west, the tops of which were lit by the sun, was the shadow of the volcano we were standing on, and the moon continued to shine brightly from the same direction. I have been many beautiful places, and seen many beautiful things, but this may have been the most cosmically incredible thing I’ve ever seen.

After walking around the peak and gaping at the views, we gathered and drank coffee and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Our Jewish friend, a tour guide in Israel, addressed the group, and explained that today is Tu bishvat, the Jewish New Year for the trees. It seemed so right that we were on the top of a volcano, breathing fresh air and enjoying the earth on this day. After his schpeil, I went over to where he and his wife were standing, and asked if we could say the shehechianu, a prayer saying thanks for bringing us to this moment in this place, that is generally said when things begin. It was the beginning of so many things—their marriage, the second decade of my life, and the day.

We spent about an hour and a half more exploring the top of the volcano, taking pictures from all angles, hiking down a little to see the little volcano right next to the one we were on, which is still active, and talking with Tom, an Australian geology student we had befriended on the way up, about the geology of the volcano.

At 8:30 we began our descent. It was slower going than I expected because of all of the switchbacks and the loose path, which gave us time to chat with the people we were walking with. I went on a carbon tax rant for a while with the Israelis and Tom, learned from Tom about how amazing it is to be a student in Australia—the government pays you to go to school—and had various other conversations with other hikers. When we got near the bottom, it got really dusty, and we looked like a herd of animals kicking up all of the dust. Exhausted, we reached the bottom, and hiked along the road for a little until we caught a chicken bus. The ride was very slow, along dirt roads and very indirect. Daniel noted that he was so tired he could sleep anywhere—except this bumpy, jerky bus. We finally got into town and walked about five minutes back to Quetzaltrekkers. We unloaded all our stuff, ate chocolate covered frozen bananas, and said goodbye.

When I got home, my host mother laughed at me, I looked like I had just finished a day of chimney sweeping. She insisted that I eat lunch, despite my utter exhaustion. I had been so excited for a shower, and when I finally got in, it was cold. I took a quick, freezing shower, ate some delicious yucca pancakes, and slept from two in the afternoon until eight. I woke up, ate a little dinner, and then Daniel and Maggie and I went to the Blue Angel, the gringo café, to eat guacamole, drink a little beer, and plan our last week here.

Monday and Tuesday

Since most of the volunteers have left, Daniel and I decided to teach the little kids in the afternoon instead of doing construction. Today we had six children between the ages of three and six. After lunch, we spent some time planning the two hours that we were to be in charge of the children. At three, they started pouring in the school. At about 3:10, we began with a name game. We tried have the kids say their name and then an animal that began with the same letter, but realized that was asking a little too much, so we just did favorite animals. We then moved to the table, where we drew for a long time. We had blank paper and some outlines to be colored in, and all the kids wanted to color in the house, so I spent a good bit of time copying the house outline over and over again. The two littlest kids are angels, and two of the bigger boys are little devils. When they tired of drawing, we brought them on the floor and played Indian chief and duck-duck-goose. Indian chief was a little too hard for them—when they were the leader, they wouldn’t change their actions, rendering it impossible to guess who the leader was. Just as we began to lose their attention, it was break time.

For the next twenty minutes, we incessantly played jump rope, while Daniel played soccer with some of the boys. The yard behind the school is covered in short yellow grass, and with the four o’clock sun and the piles of rocks, it looks very post-apocalyptic. When we couldn’t count to seventeen anymore, it was 4:20, and time for class to resume. We took the little ones to the dead-end street that the school is on, and chalked it up for the next thirty minutes. The children traced Daniel and me, each other, and drew and wrote various other things. When the kids lost interest, we took them back inside, sat on the floor, and sang a word-less Nature Camp song, Dum-Dum-Dada, which is active and predictable. The kids took well to the game, and we played for a while. We ended the day with Duck-Duck-Goose, always a favorite.

Tuesday went much the same; I took class in the morning, and Daniel and I taught the little ones again. We were told to do more teaching, so we gave the kids a letter-writing worksheet, which they excitedly filled out, and we had them run from letter to letter written in the street in chalk, which they really enjoyed. We played more games, drew a lot, and played more Dum-dum-dada.

After class, we stayed at El Nahual and watched Todo Sobre Mi Madre, an amazing Spanish film. After dinner, I spent some time at the internet café, and then went home, ate dinner, did my homework, and slept.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Day 10

We woke up around eight  after a much better night of sleep.  After lying around in the hammocks for a bit, we brushed teeth and packed up.  I had bought some more mangoes the night before, so we decided to head into town to find some bread to eat with our mangoes for breakfast.  We bought bread, sat on a street corner and ate, and then walked through the bustling Sunday market.  When we got to the other side, we were told the busses were back where we had come from, so we again had to push through the market, walking by veggies, chicken, chickens, clothing, fish, spices, you name it.  We found where the busses stopped, and asked about a direct bus back to Xela.  Since it was Sunday, there were fewer busses, and none went directly to Xela.  We got on the bus towards the capital, and waited fifteen minutes while it filled up, and then got underway.  We told the guy at the door that we wanted to get off where we’d find the bus to Xela, and though I was confident he’d tell us when we were there, I asked at a few stops if they were the right one.  After about an hour of going straight up the mountain on a badly paved road with very tight switchbacks, we got off, and the bus to Xela was already at the stop.  We ran across the road and onto the very crowded bus.  We all sat down, with half our butts in the isle, as there were three people to every seat.  The first hour of that ride was rough, trying to stay on the seat and not smush anyone as we went around the switchbacks.  Then, the bus emptied out a bit, and we got full seats.  The ride back was quick and easy, and we got back to Xela by about 12:30.  We walked through the market, and got on a bus that took us most of the way home.  We were hoping to eat at the fried chicken chain that is all around the city, but we didn’t pass any that were open on our way back.  After painfully walking through Xela, our legs sore from the hike we got to Daniel’s house, exhausted, and played with Jose until Daniel’s grandma offered us lunch. We all sat down for rice and empanadas.  After lunch, Maggie and I walked home, and I passed out until six.  I wrested myself from bed, showered, and went upstairs to watch TV with my host parents. The Golden Globes are even less exciting when they are half dubbed over in Spanish.  At around eight, we sat down for dinner, and ate chuchittos and beans and a vegetable dipped in egg and fried that was somewhere between green beans and ocra.  We talked about drinking all of dinner.  We talked about different drinks and recounted many drunken nights.  Manuel has been sober for fifteen years, so Sonya drinks for him whenever they go to parties; and their stories of going to Mayan parties and Christmases in Mexico were hilarious.  After dinner, I did my homework, wrote this, and now it is back to bed. 

Day 9

After a night filled with lots of fireworks, dogs, cats, and singing, and void of much sleep, the alarm went off at 4:40. We got out of bed, packed my pack with the few snacks we had grabbed last night, water, and a sweater, and brushed our teeth. While we were brushing, Diego came in the gate of the hostel. We locked our door, and followed him and another guy through the town a bit, and hopped on a chicken bus. In the complete darkness, we took the bus up the hill, to the park entrance. We got off, paid the entrance fee by flashlight, and began the hike. The stars were beautiful, and in some places in the hills it was hard to discern city lights from stars. We hiked very quickly in the pitch black, with only a little flashlight and my headlamp to light the way. Just a few minutes into the hike, Maggie and I were huffing and puffing. We had to ask Diego to slow down and for rest stops a few times before it even began to get light. At some point, around 6:00 or 6:10, the sky began to light up, little by little. We finally reached our first real stopping place, where we ate crackers and Nutella. We stopped at a wooden overlook, looking out on the lake just beginning to become visible. We got there as a German family, that had already passed us on the trail, was starting back on the trail. After eating and taking a few pictures, we got back on our way. Next to the wooden structure was a sign, which showed us that we were only a third of the way up. Slightly disheartened, we asked Diego where in the hike we were, and he said that it was less than half way, and it was straight up from here on out. At some point during this part of the hike, we were able to turn off our flashlights. We continued for another thirty minutes or so, and then stopped at the last vista before the top. From here, we watched the sun rise over mountains and the lake, illuminating the hills and fog a bright red. It was here that we really began to talk with Diego, who had a lot of information about the volcano and the town’s way of life, if only we could keep up with him. After watching the sunrise for a bit, we continued on. At some point, we stopped for a salt break, and ate a can of pizza flavored Pringles. Nothing could have been better in that moment than those Pringles. We stopped right next to the oldest tree on the volcano, estimated to be about 400 years old.

After this break, I was energized and ready to step on the gas. I hiked ahead with Diego as Maggie and Daniel followed twenty meters behind. We talked about San Pedro, and how hippies began coming there 80 years ago, long before the tourist trade in Guatemala was established. I asked him why there were so many Israeli establishments in San Pedro, and he told me that Guatemala had been friendly to Israel before all other Latin American countries, and it is also cheaper than going to most other places. The Israeli presence, however, is not always appreciated, as the Israeli tourists tend to be demanding, self assured, and thrifty to the point of rudeness and ridiculousness. Climbing all the stairs was much easier when my brain was occupied, and the next leg went quickly. Just as a break was due, we came across a rope swing in the path. It was heaven on a volcano. At that point, swinging in the mountain, dappled with sunlight, the hike became worth all the hard work. After that, it was only about twenty more minutes of strenuous climbing to the peak.

The view from the top was astonishing. We looked out over the entire lake, and could see four other volcanoes, including Santa Maria, the one next to Xela. We sat on a rock at the top, ate chocolate cookie sandwiches dipped in Nutella, and talked with Diego about the geology of the area. Where the lake is now had been a huge lava reserve for the surrounding volcanoes, and when they all erupted—at the same time—all the lava left the reserve, and it collapsed, forming a three hundred meter deep lake. There is a very large probability that at least one of the volcanoes will erupt in the next five years or so. After sitting and eating, climbing around the rocks, and taking some photos, we headed back down. We ran down a lot of it, making the hike down much quicker, and much more fun. We stopped to swing on a vine at one point, and Diego spotted a bird, the one that the volcano is famous for, and the one that he waited in a cabin with some photographers from National Geographic for five days to find, unsuccessfully. He called it some kind of turkey—it looked like a very large, very beautiful turkey up in a tree, with a large red crest on its head. After that, we continued running, through the woods, corn fields, and coffee plantations. I had originally been the one running the most, and then just as Maggie started to run more, I slowed down. My feet began to hurt, and it wasn’t until after the hike that I saw the giant blisters on the bottom of my feet. I kept going, and we got to the bottom, exhausted and happy. A taxi took us back to our hostel, where we cleaned up and rested, and then found lunch.

After lunch, I bought some mangoes—two for fifty cents—and we got on a boat to the next town over, San Marcos. There are roads between the towns, but they are notoriously dangerous; one tourist agency warns travelers that they have a 99% chance of being jumped on some of the roads. The boats are cheap, quick, and run very often. We got to San Marcos, tried for a while to find the rocks to jump off, and finally found them, after walking through town a bit. Maggie and Daniel sat down to chill, and I hopped in the water. It was amazing. We had a perfect view of the volcano we just climbed, and the weather was perfect. Someone walked by and told us that there was a platform that we could jump off, but that it was very high. I swam over to it, climbed up the rocks to the platform, and saw just how high it was. While I was freaking out about jumping off the fifteen or so meter high platform—one of Guatemala’s most impressive feats of architecture and tourism, Daniel and Maggie walked over. I told Daniel that I’d jump if he did, so after he jumped in, I had to. After considering and psyching myself out for a while more, I finally jumped. It was wonderful. When we got out, I sat on a rock and read for a while, and then we chatted and ate a mango, and headed back on the boat around five. We ate dinner at a very strange restaurant, called the Buddha, run by gringos and more expensive that we could have imagined. The food was alright, but giving our money to Americans instead of the locals, and eating with only other gringos, on cushions, felt pretty wrong. As we were finishing eating, they began to play the movie 127 hours. We watched the first ten minutes, and then, exhausted, walked home, wrote, read, and went to bed.

Day 8

At breakfast my host mother said, eat well, this may be the last good meal you have for a few days. I ate pancakes, eggs, and plantains. While I waited for Daniel, I packed my bag for our weekend trip to Lago de Atitlan. Daniel picked me up, and we walked to school, picking Maggie up on the way. My class was good, we continued learning preterit, which is very exciting, reviewed some present tense, and played opposites go-fish, to learn and practice some vocab. I also spent a good seven minutes of the class teaching my teacher how to do bridge when shuffling cards.

After class, I went with Daniel to his house. After he packed up, we ate lunch, which was the most amazing lunch I’ve had. Daniel’s grandmother, who is my host mother’s mother, is an excellent cook, and made stuffed peppers dipped in egg and fried, tortillas, and hotdogs wrapped in bacon. What an amazing idea. After filling ourselves up, Maggie arrived, and we walked out to the street, where we were told we could catch the 20 bus to the terminal. Sure enough, after about two minutes a little van that said 20 on it drove by, and we hopped on. We then took an amazing ride through Xela, seeing more of the quite large city than we had ever seen. It has many markets and many different neighborhoods. It was a really exciting ride, with the American pop songs playing over and over the whole time. We didn’t really know where the bus was going, or where we were trying to go, but the driver kept yelling “Terminal,” so we were pretty sure we were on the right bus. At some point, the bus stopped, and the driver told us that this was the terminal. As soon as we got off the bus, a young guy asked us where we were going. We told him the name of the city, and he pointed us to the right. In that direction was a huge, bustling market, filled with fruits, vegetables, backpacks, and anything else one could want to buy. We walked about halfway through before deciding we had to be in the wrong place; there couldn’t be a terminal around here. Just before we turned around, I asked someone where the terminal to Panajachel is. He said go straight down a little path and you’ll get there. We walked down the path, past shoemakers, cell phone stores, and tons of other stalls. When we finally got out of the little path, we were confronted with an amazing sight. Sixty or so brightly painted, recycled American school buses all proclaiming a love for Jesus, called chicken buses, where all lined up, honking, pouring exhaust into the air, and loading inside and on top with people and sacks and luggage. Before we could fully comprehend the scene, a man approached us, asking where we were going. We told him, and he told us to follow us, and he led us through the jam of buses to one that was going directly to Panajachel. We got on, sat near the front, and watched as the bus filled up. After sitting for about seven or ten minutes, the bus took off. As it drove through Xela, quite aggressively for a vehicle of its size, it stopped every few minutes to let more people on. A man stood in the door the entire time yelling “Pana,” and the bus came to a rolling stop as families, business people, men, women and children, wearing native garb and western clothing hopped on the bus. For the next three hours, the trip went like this. At almost every stop, people of all shapes, sizes, and ages came on, selling everything from fruit in a bag, to Chiclets, to a solve everything hair and skin cream, to empanadas. As we rode, I considered writing a story in the same vein as The Things They Carried, called, The Things That Came On The Bus. At one point, a guy carrying a chandelier walked to the back of the bus. For most of the ride, a woman with some chicks in a box sat next to us. At some point, we paid for the ride, a whopping 30 Quetzales, the equivalent of about four dollars. The ride was beautiful, all through the Western Highlands of the country, through mountains and farms and towns and cities. The road is carved out of the mountains, and a rain storm this past rainy season brought down many of the walls, so the four lane road would sometimes become a two lane road, with only a few meters notice. Also due to the rainstorm, parts of the road fell into the mountain, leaving holes in the road. People got on and off at the tops of mountains, in the middle of farms, and everywhere in between. A few times during the ride we stopped at more popular stops, and stayed there for ten or fifteen minutes, as sodas and fries and chicken and nuts were offered to us constantly.

After three hours of twisting through the mountain roads, we went down a massive hill, and the lake spilled out in front of us. We finally arrived in Panajachel, and got off when the city center was announced. Having no idea where to go, we wandered around, heading in the general direction of the lake. The way from the bus to the water was suffocatingly touristy, with all kinds of kitchy crap for sale. We got down to the water, were harassed by some vendors, and then approached by a guy asking where we were going. He led us, somewhat forcefully, to his boat, and promised us the same price that we had been expecting, so we took it. We arrived at a sketchy dock by some houses, and were greeted by many guys trying to get us to come with them to this hostel or another. We plowed through them, got onto the main drag, and looked at our guide book for a place to stay. We found the names of three that looked good, and went to find them. A somewhat bedraggled guy told us he’d get us to a hostel, and though we told him no several times, continued to offer. We brushed by him and walked faster, but he followed us. We passed the hostel that we wanted to stay at, but didn’t stop because he was standing at the gate. We walked around the block with him in pursuit, and then down a dirt alley, until we realized how bad an idea that was. On our way out of the alley, he continued to offer, until I looked him in the eye, and shouted no, with gusto. No longer being followed, we got back to the hostel and checked in. We put down our stuff, paid about $3.50 each, and ventured out for dinner. It was not so easy to find a decent place to eat. San Pedro, the town we are in, is famous for being a hippie hotspot, and all of the restaurants are called things like *** and serve falafel and Indian food. We sat down at one place, and after being told they were out of just about everything on the menu, found a little taco place, and sat down for dinner. Though they didn’t get our orders exactly right, we ended up with plenty of tacos and much more beer than we ordered. We had a really nice dinner—the first nice experience we had at Lago Atitlan, and took the time to just sit and chat.

We knew that we wanted to hike the volcano, San Pedro, on Saturday, but we could not figure out how to do it. Our guide book suggested taking a tour with a guy named Matthew, and said that he could usually be found at a certain bar in town. At about 8:30 or 9:00, we went into the bar. We asked if Matthew was there, and were told that he moved to Australia seven months ago, so we left the bar. A few minutes later, I went back to the bar, ordered a coke, and asked the bar tender if he knew how to hike the volcano. He said that it was really best to do it with a guide, and that he’d call a guy he knew to see if he would be our guide. Almost before I had time to say thank you, Diego walked in the door. We sat outside the bar and discussed with Diego going up the volcano on Saturday. After talking for a few minutes, we left to go to sleep, with plans to meet Diego in our hostel at five minutes before five am tomorrow.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Day 6

Though I was not quite ready to be awake when my alarm went off this morning, I was excited to be awake and to have my Spanish class. I finished learning all of the irregular verbs today in present tense, which means that tomorrow I get to begin learning the past tense. This is very exciting, as it is very difficult to have a conversation only in the present tense. I’m sure that I’ve been sounding like a dumbass every time I talk, but my family and everyone I’ve spoken with has been incredibly helpful, encouraging, and has taken me seriously. After class, we played charades with most of the students. Though I was not looking forward to it, it turned out to be quite useful and very affirming that I am, in fact, learning the verbs I’m being taught.

After the activity, Daniel and I walked home, and stopped by Maggie’s house. We didn’t stay for long, but did come in long enough to meet Diego, her six-year-old host brother. He is just about the cutest thing ever to walk on two legs. I went home, ate lunch with my mother and sister, and read for ten minutes while I waited for Daniel to pick me up.

This afternoon was much more productive and rewarding than the others have been. Daniel and I worked with Gilman (sp?), who is doing most of the construction. We helped him build and set up a gutter system, organize all of the wood and other stuff lying around, and readied the ground for a floor. There was enough work to keep us busy, and at the end of the day, we felt accomplished.

Instead of going home for dinner, we stayed at the school to take a cooking lesson, taught by Patti, who does all of the odd jobs at El Nahual. We learned to make fried broccoli, breaded with whipped egg, and doused in salsa. It had been cloudy all day—very unusual for this time of year—and as the sun was setting, it peeked out beneath the clouds, dousing the city in a gorgeous warm light. Daniel, Maggie and I went up to the second floor classrooms that are being built to get a better view, and were met with stunning rays of sun, and the volcano burning reds and yellows. This is a beautiful place. I decided then that I need to begin bringing my camera places and taking pictures, which I have yet to do here in Guatemala. We ate dinner with the other students, and talked mostly about how to teach the little ones who come to El Nahual in the afternoons.

After dinner, Daniel and Maggie and I stopped at Daniel’s house, said hi to Jose, and grabbed Daniel’s Lonely Planet book. We went to a café right at the parque central, which has a balcony overlooking the park and the very European buildings around the park. Over a very expensive beer, we discussed our plans for the rest of our time here, and then talked about how things were going, what we hope to achieve, and just took the evening to talk and be with each other. After our little date, we went back to Maggie’s house, and played with Diego. Daniel played War with him, until we stacked his deck when he wasn’t looking so he’d win. Throughout the game, he began exhibiting some very David-like behaviors, which climaxed with a noise-making showdown between him and me. It appears I have found a soul mate.

Day 5

I had my first cry of the trip tonight. After dinner, my family was sitting at the table, when my host father began to break dance. Seeing my host dad, all 5’ 5” of him, in his baggy, cut-off, Gold’s Gym sweater just about killed me. I don’t remember exactly how we got to break dancing, but I do remember that the beginning of the conversation was very serious. After work this afternoon, most of the volunteers watched a documentary about the Guatemalan Civil war, which went from 1981 to 1996. Though it was very compelling and the cinematography was impressive—very up close and personal with the conflict—it was not very informative. When I got home, I began talking to my host mom and sister about the war, while they finished cooking empanadas. The conversation for most of the rest of the evening was about the war. It was very interesting to hear about what it was like in this city, and how it affected people like my host family. My parents were in university during the war, and my father participated in several protests against the military government, which was incredibly dangerous. Though my mother did not participate in any protests, she did once hide a few guerrillas, and although three of them got away, the last one, who had already been shot in the foot, did not get more than two blocks before my mother saw the army shoot him dead. Other than that, however, the war did not seem to penetrate the city all that much, and things were basically business as usual. The conversation, however, was very interesting and informative. By the end of the conversation, my father suggested that the war happened to control the population, and was, therefore, a good thing. It all went downhill from there. He told us about their drug dealing neighbor when they lived in Jersey City, about various exploits in the bars in New Jersey, and he danced for us. Multiple times. Needless to say, dinner was the best part of the day.

After breakfast this morning, Daniel picked me up. It had been freezing last night, and I was a bit more tired than I would have liked, but not exhausted. We picked Maggie up, and walked to the school. My class was good, I’m chugging through lots of irregular verbs right now. Nothing is better than learning new words and new grammar, and coming home for lunch and being able to actually use what I learned in class. After class and before lunch, Maggie, Daniel and I went walked with Jose to the Central Park. We used the ATM there, and then Daniel and I bought watches from a street stall. Mine is a little bigger than Daniel’s, but other than that, they match perfectly. I needed a watch for a few reasons: I didn’t bring an alarm clock, I’m not carrying around a phone so I actually need a watch, and all of the clocks in my house are different, because my dad wants different things to be at different times—the clock in the kitchen is ten minutes fast, so that meals come early, the one in the living room is fifteen minutes fast, so that guests leave when Manuel is ready, not when the guests are ready, the clock in the bedroom is eight minutes fast, so that he’ll actually get out of bed and get to work.

This afternoon I worked on construction again. We put up some more siding, but did not get very much done in the time we had. There have been several very interesting decisions made in the building process, and I daresay the final product will be amusing, if not completely safe. Nothing is very uniform, nothing is very straight, and nothing would pass building codes in the US. However, I have full faith that it will serve its purpose well. We finished a bit early, and hung around the office for a bit, until we started the movie.

Day 4

Breakfast this morning was at 7:15, and consisted of mosh, a hot, milky, sweet drink almost like very thin oatmeal; bread; and a mandarin orange. Daniel came to pick me up, and we walked to Maggie’s house to retrieve her. She was waiting at the door when we arrived, and we headed straight for El Nahual, our school. We missed the turn the first time around, but made it there with time to spare. Stephen and Brenna, the volunteer and international coordinators, respectively, pulled up at the same time on Stephen’s motorcycle. Stephen’s entire lineage went to Oberlin, and though he was the one maverick and went to University of Virginia, he still emits a strong Obie vibe. We were introduced to our teachers, and walked upstairs to the big room, with small tables set up all around it. We each took one table with our teacher, and began the lessons. My teacher is Sergio, who is young and from Xela, this city.

Though it gets hot here during the day, it is freezing in the morning. The cars all had a layer of frost, and when we started classes, I had to sit on my hands to keep them functioning. The first thing I did in the class was take a little test, to see where I was, we went through it, (I didn’t do too poorly, surprisingly) and then jumped into learning regular verbs in the present tense. Sergio is very funny, and loves the word ‘joke,’ so he often uses a word in a sentence, and then says, “No, es Jyoke.” We took a long break, and began to get to know the other volunteers and Stephen. He got here to Guatemala on his motorcycle, as he’s done before, and had many stories about crossing borders without papers, and paying off the right people to let him through. There are two women from Australia, one from Canada, and one from Finland, on a return trip here with her boyfriend.

We broke for lunch at noon. I walked back to my house with Daniel and Maggie, and when I got home, my host mother was cooking lunch. At first, she wouldn’t let me help her, so I stood in the kitchen and talked with her. When she started making tortillas, however, I began asking questions, and she taught me how to make them. They are super easy to make, and she has a little press, which makes them even easier to make. When we were finished cooking, we ate with my father, and my sister came in a bit late. With lunch, we drank starfruit juice, and though they taught me the word for starfruit, carambola, I could not remember it for my life. Daniel picked me up, and as we left my house, I realized I forgot the word again, and noted that my family would be sure to make fun of me for that. When we picked Maggie up, we got to meet her family’s dog, a little yappy white dog that always wears a Santa costume, complete with a hood and everything.

We all met for a while when we returned, and picked jobs. They are building some more classrooms in the school, so I offered to help with the construction. For the rest of the afternoon, I worked on building a few walls with the nice young guy who was working on the building. Stephen came and helped for a while too. Building standards are very different here than in the States. Though Stephen and I cringed at a few of the decisions made in the process, I’m sure they will be very nice, safe classrooms when they are all finished. At five, all the volunteers, tired from teaching and supervising children, and doing construction, walked to the Blue Angel Café, a popular gringo hotspot. There we talked about the week, what jobs we’ll have, and the other activities during the week. We also got to know each other a bit more. After the meeting, which was a bit drawn out, I used the internet for a bit, and then Maggie and Daniel and I walked home. When I got back, my host parents were watching Capote, so I sat down and watched most of Capote. They didn’t get to eating dinner (which I had done at the café) until after the movie, at 9:30. I sat with them and ate some plantains with crema, and drank coffee. It was not long after we sat down, that they asked if I remembered the word for starfruit. Much of the conversation for the rest of the night was at my expense, about the carambolas. But, alas, now I have heard it more than twenty times, and will hopefully not forget it. After talking and joking around a bit more, we finished dinner, and I went to my room to do my homework.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Day 3

I woke up this morning at nine, well rested. While I was eating breakfast, Daniel and Jose came to the house. When I was finished eating, we stopped by Jose and Daniel’s house, and then began an adventure. It was hot today, easily in the eighties. Jose took us to the Parc Centro, a beautiful park in the center of the city. It is right next to a huge catholic church that is at least 250 years old, according to my host mom. We walked around the park, people watched for a bit, and then walked through a market for a while. This city is really nice. It has an upbeat, friendly vibe. It is much wealthier than I had expected; it has a very middle class feel. After walking around for a long time, we ended up at the soccer field/basketball court where we had played yesterday. We played soccer for a long time, played with Jose’s friend’s puppy, and when we were exhausted, we went back to Daniel’s house. Because Maggie had my number and not Daniel’s, we walked back to my house, saw that Maggie had called, and she came over. Manuel, my host father, took us on a walk to the school, El Nahual, where we’ll be taking Spanish classes and teaching, starting tomorrow. It is not a short walk, and includes a good sized hill halfway there. On the walk, we caught up with Maggie, whose house has eleven other people living in it, including two babies. No one was at the school, so we saw it but could not look inside. It is on the edge of the city, where new houses pop up often, as the corn fields turn into city.

After our walk, we went to Daniel’s house, played cards, and ate lunch. We then walked Maggie home, by way of my house so that Maggie and Daniel could get sunscreen. I went home with Daniel, played some cards with Daniel and Jose, and then went back to my house to take a nap. At five, I decided I should get out of bed, and took a shower. I didn’t know where my family was, so I sat on the couch and read for a while, until Sonya invited me upstairs to watch TV with the family. We watched Die Hard dubbed in Spanish, which I’m certain added to the quality of the film. When the movie was over, we ate dinner. During dinner, Gabby was flipping through the channels, and I heard something on Fox about a shooting in Arizona. We watched long enough to learn most of the story, but I got angry at the reporter for trying to beat up on the sheriff, so we turned it off. We talked for a minute about Fox news, went back upstairs to watch another film, but I didn’t last long. Since I have to wake up at seven tomorrow, it is bedtime.

Day 2

After a chilly night on the air mattress, we woke up at 6:30. I stuck my head under the cold shower, got dressed, and ate a breakfast of coffee, toast and nutella. We went up on the roof to see Guatemala City in the morning, and some of our hostel friends were up there, about to go to bed after a long night of bar hopping. Manuel took us to the bus stop; we bought our tickets to Queztaltenango, or Xela; and had an hour to wait around. At 8:30 the bus arrived, and we boarded. It started out about half full. We left the station, drove for maybe six minutes, and then stopped. The driver disappeared, lots of people came on, and lots of vendors came through selling tamales, key chains and sodas. After about 20 or 25 minutes, the driver reappeared and we got on our way. We stopped several more times in Guatemala city to pick people up and to host beggars and vendors. After we left the city, we started heading up. We drove through towns, through farm lands, and up lots of mountains. It was stunning. About three hours into the drive, I picked up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me, and had my first real conversation in Spanish of the trip. Though my grammar is awful, we managed to have a good chat, and as she got off the bus I felt much more prepared for my homestay. Though we were strongly advised to do this trip during the day time, there were parts that I wished it had been dark, places where the road just fell into the cliff below or where the cliff above had just toppled onto the road. About five hours after we boarded the bus, we arrived at the bus stop in Xela. Maggie’s host father and adorable little brother picked her up first, and my host mom and sister picked Daniel and I up about ten minutes later. It was not a long drive to our first stop, Daniel’s home stay. He is staying with my host mother’s mother, father, and nephew, Jose, who is eleven. We then drove about three blocks more and got to my family’s home. It is beautiful. It is two stories, with a third story terrace, a view of most of the city and a volcano or two, and it is very roomy. I put my stuff down in my room, and took a tour of the house. By this time, everything was in Spanish. My host family consists of my mother, Sonya, my father, Manuel, and my sister, Gabby. They spent fifteen years living in Jersey City, so my sister actually learned to read and write in English first. She is an English teacher at a high school in the city. However, her mother insisted right from the beginning that she was to speak no English to me, so everything was in Spanish. After the tour, Gabby and Sonya prepared lunch alone, despite all of my offers to help. I stood in the kitchen and we talked about where I’m from, their stories, etc. Manuel then joined us, and we ate lunch. They are all so kind, excited for me to learn Spanish, patient, and funny. After lunch, Daniel and Jose came to retrieve me. Jose is very talkative, very patient with us speaking Spanish, and a great eleven-year-old kid. It did not take him more than a few minutes to start treating us like older brothers. He took us to the cancho and we played soccer for a long time with just the three of us, and were then joined by another kid for a while. We shot around, played some basketball, and talked for a few hours.

When we were worn out, we walked back to Jose’s house, and drank some water. We then played in the street with nerf airsoft guns for a while. Since Maggie had my host mother’s number and we didn’t have hers, we walked back to my house, but my family was not home. Jose showed us his bunny and the chickens that live in a little walled in space next to our house. When we tried to get out, we realized that we had shut the door, and were completely locked in with eight or ten foot tall walls all around us. After trying the doors, I hoisted Daniel up over the wall, and he let us out.

We went back to Daniel and Jose’s house, had tea and bread that we picked up on the way and played go fish and spoons. I asked Jose’s grandma if I should call my mother to see where I should eat dinner, and she insisted that I eat at her house, so I didn’t even call. We ate dinner, just the Daniel, Jose and me, while Jose’s grandma sat with us and talked about the volcanoes around among other things. Dinner was exactly what I had hoped for a first homestay dinner: beans, tortillas, and plantains. After dinner, we played some more cards, and then I walked home.

When I got home, my mother was preparing dinner. I explained to her that I had already eaten, and then the entire family proceeded to have a long conversation in the kitchen. After talking in the kitchen for at least a half hour, we went into the dining room for dinner. I did not eat, but we sat there for at least two hours, talking about racism in Guatemala and the US, about the Maya and the American Indians, about Obama, Baltimore, and how to deal with classism and racism. After dinner, everyone went to bed, I wrote this entry, and now I get to sleep after a long and wonderful first full day.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Guatemala Day 1

My alarm went off at 2:30 this morning, and my dad and I were on the road by 3:10. The drive to Dulles, getting through the airport, and the first flight were all easy and pleasant; I had the entire exit row to myself on the flight and slept the whole way. I arrived at the Huston airport with three hours to kill, and only one mission—to find a gift for my host family, as the gift I had brought, homemade jam, was confiscated by Security. I walked around, bought some toys and chocolates, and then settled in at my gate. Maggie showed up about an hour later. We chatted about our breaks, and how excited we are for the next three weeks. We got food and waited for Daniel. He came, sporting a new haircut and a guitar, and we boarded the flight to Guatemala soon after. I sat with Daniel through the uneventful flight; the most exciting part was seeing the mountains of Guatemala from the air. The mountains are beautiful.
We landed, got through customs, and called Manuel, who runs the hostel we are staying at tonight. After we found him, he introduced us to a blonde woman at the airport as “the people camping out in our living room tonight.” This was clearly the start to something amazing. He drove us back to the hostel, all the while telling us about this city—the biggest in Central America at 3.2 million people—about who he is, and about what he’d heard of El Nahual, the language school and community center where we’ll be working. He is young and Guatemalan, started this hostel 9 months ago with his Aussie girlfriend, and never says no. The hostel has already achieved the highest ratings of the hostels in Guatemala City, and for good reason. Since there were no more dorm beds for us, he gave us a room—more like a hallway—with a bed and an air mattress, for the whopping price of seven dollars—including breakfast. The hostel is in the financial district, surrounded by large glass buildings. The city, though known to be dangerous, is clean and very pretty, with trees and parks lining the streets. It was hot and sunny when we arrived. We settled down, made and drank some smoothies, spent a long time at the bank because I had some issues, and then hung out on the roof of the hostel for a while, talking to the other travelers. Around six we asked for a dinner recommendation, and were taken by a friend of Manuel to a restaurant called “El Club.” We were offered steak or fish, and were then served a delicious meal of beans, rice, fish, and steak, with a cup of soup to start. Over dinner we talked about the possibilities of this trip, spoke some Spanish, and got really excited for all of the adventures to come. After paying the equivalent of ten dollars for the three of us, we took a cab back. Manuel sat us down when we got back and outlined what he thought we should do in our spare time these next three weeks, showing us the places we need to see, and the routes, hostels, prices, and all other pertinent information for us to travel on our own. We are now planning on traveling a lot more than originally planned, although that is all subject to change. We played some cards and dice, and I spoke with the volunteer coordinator at el nahual, where we’re going tomorrow.

I am going to attempt to keep up this blog, although I am not sure if I’ll be able to, due to internet access concerns. I will do my best to update as often as possible, and hopefully pictures will come soon as well.